Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Inaudible Voice of Iraqi Democracy

The anti-war movement’s international peace conference, held in London on 10 December 2005, brought together 1,400 delegates from all corners of the globe. Among them were representatives of people who are often talked about in the west, but rarely listened to: the Iraqis themselves. For all the acres of newsprint and hours of broadcasting time spent discussing our invasion and occupation of Iraq, and what future courses of action might be in the best interests of that country, Iraqi voices have been all but inaudible in what passes for political debate in the west.

Poll after poll has shown that the Iraqi public overwhelmingly rejects the idea that the invaders came to liberate them, and demands the end of the occupation. Our response has been contemptuous. At the end of the recent national reconciliation conference in Cairo, representatives from the whole of Iraqi civil society united around a statement that called for a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupying forces. President Bush immediately rejected any such timetable, and the debate on the merits of withdrawal continues in the US and the UK, despite the fact that the Iraqis had already made their position - the only position of any relevance if Iraq were truly a democracy - unambiguously clear.

The conference in London last Saturday gave a number of Iraqis the opportunity to articulate their national consensus on the occupation to a western audience. Since we share responsibility for what has been done to their country, and since everyone across the western political spectrum claims to wish to see a democratic Iraq, we surely owe these voices our time and attention. What follows is an account of the views expressed by some of those Iraqi speakers.

Hassan Juma – President of the General Union of Oil Employees

Hassan Juma greeted the global anti-war movement on behalf of the oil workers of Iraq. He said that for the sake of peace we have to stand together, because from that unity we draw strength.

Iraqi oil workers, he said, are standing firm against the invasion and against the western oil companies that followed that invasion a mere 2 months afterwards; companies like Kellogg, Brown and Root, and the US Vice-President’s former employers Halliburton. The oil workers are calling for the expulsion of these companies since they are well aware of the real reasons for the invasion of their country. The trade union was formed to defend this highly important sector of the economy from US control.

Juma said that Iraq has suffered the “brutalisation…of its very soul” at the hands of the occupiers. They have devastated the infrastructure: universities, nurseries, industry and so on. Now the US controls the government, and one of the first actions of the US proconsul Paul Bremer was to pass strict anti-trade union laws to prohibit organisation in the workplace. “This is the democracy”, he said, with some disdain.

The objectives and political positions of the Union are as follows:

1. immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces;
2. self-determination and democracy for Iraq;
3. security and the means for survival (sanitation, food, electricity);
4. a rejection of terrorism and all violence against civilians;
5. support for the honourable Iraqi resistance;
6. no privatisation of our nation’s oil wealth or control of it by other means;
7. a call on the global anti-war movement to support the union, since our enemies are the same; and
8. cancellation of Iraq’s national debt.

Hassan Juma finished by expressing the hope that he would see us all again, “in a free and unified Iraq”.

Hanna Ibrahim (Woman’s Will)

Hanna Ibrahim spoke on behalf of the Iraqi women’s group Woman’s Will. Holding up a picture of Condoleeza Rice she said “I don’t belong to the same gender as this woman. She kills our children. She talks of women’s rights while her teeth bleed with the blood of my people. Her and her government brought terrorism to my country. I hear that if the US loses 5,000 troops they will withdraw from Iraq. So we need to kill 3,000 of them to make them leave? What kind of civilisation is this, that needs killing for there to be peace? History will condemn George Bush and Tony Blair as war criminals.”

She lamented the fact that in the 21st century “imperialism is reborn and is destroying my country”. Today in Iraq there are thousands of internally displaced refugees, many of them camped out in the deserts of western Iraq. Most of these people are women, children and the elderly. Women’s Will has collected testimonies from women who had suffered at the hands of the occupation. Many have been taken hostage by occupying forces or the Iraqi army as a way of getting at their tribes or their families. One former hostage she had spoken to, a girl of 15, was asked by her captors, “are you a virgin?” This was the first question they asked her, and this is what causes Iraqi men to join the resistance; the brutality of the occupation. The US military’s Operation Steel Curtain, conducted in western Iraq recently with the new Iraqi army, employed a policy of mass killing, according to Hanna Ibrahim. Everyone was targeted, including children. Heads and hands were cut off.

She said that she had been upset by the speeches made earlier in the day by the bereaved mothers of British and American troops. She said that these experiences of grief should be shared with those of Iraqis because this could only empower the movement against the war. “I call on all mothers: help me drive these warlords out of my country. Civilisation doesn’t come on the back of killing.”

Ayatollah Jawad al-Khalisi (Iraqi National Foundation Conference)

Jawad al-Khalisi spoke on behalf of the Iraqi National Foundation Conference (INFC), a political movement designed to unify Iraqis of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds who oppose the occupation. He began by stressing the importance of the global anti-war movement. The demonstrations in London, Washington and elsewhere have had a big impact on people watching in Iraq and he urged us to keep up that pressure on our governments. In addition, he deplored the kidnapping of the Norman Kember and the other western peace activists, and said that all Iraqis were praying for their release.

Al-Khalisi said that the central issue for us to understand is that the “new Iraq” is a great lie. He said that the lie that we have been told has three faces: freedom, democracy and human rights. In fact, worse abuses take place now in Iraq than was the case under Saddam, “and I say this as someone who was himself imprisoned by the former regime”. He said that Iraqis knew about the abuses in Abu Ghraib months before the western media reported them. Iraqis live the violence, anarchy and chaos in that country on a daily basis. In addition, Iraq’s national oil wealth is being stolen, not spent on reconstruction. “Yesterday we had only two hours of electricity”, he said. “Is this the new Iraq?”

Al-Khalisi remarked that whilst it is said that Iraq is a divided nation, one should note that most nations are divided by religion and ethnic group in some way. It does not then follow that violence will be the result. In fact, Iraqis lived together for centuries until these differences became divisions. To illustrate this point, he recounted the story of a stampede of Shia worshippers that occurred earlier this year, when rumours had spread of a suicide bomber in their midst. Many were killed in the stampede, including some that fell from a bridge. That bridge connects a Shia and a Sunni area, and many Sunnis dived into the river
to save their Shia compatriots from drowning.

Al-Khalisi reiterated the point made earlier by the Iraqi academic
Sami Ramadani that the occupiers were “actively” sowing discord in Iraq; attempting to exacerbate social differences in the classic colonial divide-and-rule tactic. Ramadani had said that one US General had compared this strategy to the “Phoenix program” of covert assassinations used in Vietnam, whilst another had told NBC that the use of death squads “may help [the situation in Iraq] get better”. Al-Khalisi said that this attempt to divide Iraqis was also an attempt to redraw the map of Iraq and the Middle East in favour of the US ally Israel. He asked why Iraq was invaded on the pretext of it having weapons of mass destruction when Israel is the only nuclear power in the region.

Al-Khalisi asserted that since the war was illegal, all subsequent UN Security Council resolutions attempting to legitimatise the occupation in retrospect are themselves illegitimate. By contrast, Iraqis have the inalienable right to resistance as enshrined in international law, just as the French had the right to resist the Nazis. This resistance does not include terrorism and attacks on civilians, all of which the INFC rejects absolutely. But al-Khalisi said it should not be forgotten that the invasion and occupation was the greatest terrorist act of all. Ultimately, the occupation destroys human dignity and freedom, where Iraqis can now be shot at will by the invader. No Iraqi can be happy either with the killing of civilians or the killing of occupying soldiers.

The INFC views the current political process under the occupation as “a lie”, consisting of “fake elections” and a “US-drafted constitution”. It has spoken to the UN’s representatives in Iraq, and attended the recent national reconciliation conference in Cairo to express its demands: a timetable for withdrawal and the installation of an interim government of neutral technocrats, pending free and fair elections for a fully sovereign Iraq.

Al-Khalisi concluded by thanking the anti-war movement for its efforts to prevent the invasion, to end the occupation, and to build bridges between the west and the Iraqi people. He left the stage to a standing ovation.